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Michael Dwyer (1772-1825) – The Outlaw of the Wicklow Mountains

The Dwyer-McAllister Cottage.

Much of the post 1798 folklore in the Wicklow Mountains concerns the rebel leader Michael Dwyer who held out until 1803. Born in Camara, Co. Wicklow, in 1772, he was raised near Eadestown in the Glen of Imail and served under General Joseph Holt during the 1798 Rebellion.

His nemesis was Captain William Hoare Hume who succeeded to the substantial Humewood estate near Kiltegan, aged 26, following the killing of his father near the Glen of Imail in October 1798. Contemporary accounts suggest a cat and mouse game ideally suited to Hollywood quills. Michael Dwyer, the most wanted man in Ireland, is a rebel with a heart. He stands accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Captain Hume is an officer and a gentleman, torn between his responsibility as a magistrate and a promise to avenge his father’s death.

Hume seems to have spent close on five years constantly arriving at ramshackle cottages to find empty beds still warm from Dwyer’s recently reclining body. When he enquired about Dwyer’s whereabouts, the people spoke in riddles although, of course, Dwyer and his men were always secreted behind some nearby barn or hedge, ready to ignite their blunderbusses should Hume have lost his cool.

The Siege of Derrynamuck, 1799

Things reached a head with the siege of Derrynamuck in 1799. Betrayed by a lifelong enemy, Dwyer’s party found themselves under siege in Miley Connell’s cottage (now the celebrated “Dwyer-McAllister Cottage”) at Derrynamuck in the Glen of Imaal. Their assailants, commanded by Captain Roderick McDonald, wore the redcoats of the Humewood Yeomanry. It was a bitter cold snow-swept February morning. The rebel gang had four muskets between them. During a brief truce, McDonald agreed to allow all women and children to leave the area. From here on, the battle reads like a closing scene from a spaghetti western as the thatched cottage was set on fire and the defenders began to be killed. Dr. John Savage was the first to fall dead. Paddy Costello was next.

When Dwyer’s great northern friend, Sam McAllister, took a bullet, it seemed certain that the great Wicklow rebel was about to meet his maker. However, McAllister, a big Ulster Presbyterian, then made the most epic decision of his life. He staggered out the doorway of Connell’s house and caused such a hullabaloo among the redcoats trying to shoot him down that Michael Dwyer and his remaining men had a chance to effect their escape. Only Dwyer himself accomplished the feat. Unfortunately the remainder of his party – Dr. Walt McDaniel, Paddy O’Toole and six others – were captured, taken to the Main Square in Baltinglass and hanged.

A monument to these men now stands at this site. There is much debate as to the true facts of the battle of Derrynamuck. I don’t plan to get involved. I just think it could make a great movie, red blood melting into crisp white snow as the thick black smoke of musket fire slowly lifts.

Emmet & the Surrender

In 1803, he met Robert Emmet but decided he would only commit his men to the rebellion if it looked like it had a chance of success. As it happened, the authorities had a massive crackdown on rebel activity after Emmet’s failure. Anyone who harboured Dwyer was to be severely punished. New barracks were built at Glenmalure, Glencree, Lara and Aghavannagh. And between 1800 and 1809, the Military Road was built, connecting the Aghavannagh barracks by 55km of winding road to Rathfarnham.

Either way, in 1803, Michael Dwyer surrendered, in person, to Captain William Hume. The surrender was negotiated through a Protestant farmer, William Jackson, or Billy the Rock, who was known to both Hume and Dwyer as a trustworthy sort. Dwyer’s terms were that his men be pardoned and that he himself be sent to North America. Captain Hume rode to Dublin and presented these terms to the Lord Lieutenant with such dexterity that he cantered home again that same day with a letter of agreement. Billy oversaw the dramatic meeting in a field near Baltinglass where the Captain addressed the rebel: “I am authorized to accept of your surrender on those conditions”.

However, news of Dwyer’s surrender was by now rapidly circulating throughout the county and other landlords were less inclined to niceties. Morley Saunders, the Hon. Benjamin O’Neill Stratford and General Beresford of Saunder’s Grove demanded access to the prisoner. Captain Hume waved His Excellency’s sanction in their faces and refused. Beresford galloped off promising that Hume would rue the day he ever crossed his path. Recognizing the potential for a lynch mob, Hume assembled his cavalry, put Dwyer upon his best hunter and headed north to obtain some degree of safety in Kilmainham Gaol.

Australia & Death

In August 1805, Dwyer was dispatched from Cobh to Australia as a free settler, with his wife, the two eldest of his seven children and several comrades. He was granted a 100-acre farm near Sydney but fell foul of the no-nonsense Governor of New South Wales, Captain Bligh (of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame) and was banished to Norfolk Island. He subsequently returned to Sydney, became a constable in the Australian police, rising to become chief of police in Liverpool, New South Wales. Unfortunately he took to the drink and was dismissed for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. He died of dysentery aged 53 in August 1825.

His remains were later interred beneath the Waverly Monument in Sydney, unveiled in 1900, an event to which huge crowds of Australian Irish settlers showed up to pay their respects. Dwyer’s descendants continue to live throughout Australia today.